Look to the future: humans in 50 years


Will we become cyborgs? Will we be disease free? And what have vacuum cleaners got to do with it? JOHN HOLDENasks scientists how humans might change over the next 50 years

Prof Charlie Spillane, Centre for Chromosome Biology, NUI Galway

Exciting new opportunities for human enhancement are now emerging due to converging technological advances. In robotics and nanotechnology it includes cybernetic boody augmentations and artificial red blood cells; in information technology, it means artificial intelligence, computer-aided human decision making, mobile computing and smart clothes; in cognitive science, it takes in augmented reality, “smart” drugs, neural implants; and in biotechnology it involves genetics, immunology, synthetic biology and bio-engineering.

Technological synergies are now emerging that offer new opportunities for human enhancement. These synergies are likely to herald a Human 2.0 era, in which human enhancement technologies are one of the next science, technology and innovation frontiers.

Technological nations that embrace, rather than fear, the advent of human enhancement will likely be the future leaders in the provision of human enhancement technology products, services and innovations.

Human enhancement is not new. The process has been underway since humans developed their first enhanced skills, such as making fire, writing and the cultivation of food crops.

Such technological enhancement of human capabilities has facilitated human population expansion from 200 million people just over 2000 years ago to 7,000 million people on the planet today.

Enhancement of human capabilities continues to be achieved in a multitude of ways, not all of which have to be based on genetics. Some everyday examples include reading, exercising, nutrition, studying, glasses, prosthetic limbs, hearing aids, computers, vaccination, smart phones and Viagra.

Dr Mauro Dragone, UCD School of Computer Science and Informatics

I’m working on a European-wide project that will make domestic life for humans easier for all concerned in the future. We are trying to build intelligent ecologies of robotic devices combining sensors, household appliances and mobile robots. Not just humanoid robots working in your home but broader home systems.

We already have lots of little robots working in our houses. Various domestic exist appliances with limited intelligence: alarm clocks, TVs, cookers, vacuum cleaners. The challenge is to make those entities learn how to work together in an intelligent way.

Imagine a house in which we install an autonomous vacuum cleaner and also an alarm system. With cooperation between the two systems, the vacuum cleaner can automatically learn that their user doesn’t like the cleaner to be activated at certain times of the day. So it will do its cleaning when, for example, the user is out of the house.

We are trying to build systems that adapt to the human, rather than the human having to adapt to the device. [These are] systems that can learn to cooperate and do work more efficiently. We are designing devices and artificial intelligence solutions that mimic brains found in biology. These brains will be connected across the whole house system and so every device will share knowledge and help each other to learn.

Dr Ross McManus, Institute of Molecular Medicine, Trinity College Dublin

The point at which our understanding of biology can be translated into treatments for diseases is getting closer all the time and I think the landscape will be very different 50 years from now.

The recent sad case of Batten’s disease in an Irish infant has however raised awareness of the possibilities for gene therapy in the treatment of inherited disease. Gene therapy is in its infancy but offers real hope for the future.

A key development will be the harnessing of stem cells to replace damaged tissues. Coupled with the repair of genetic defects in such cells prior to reintroduction to the body, this should lead to radically improved treatments.

Individual genome sequencing will become the norm in the near future and this will usher in an era of personalised medicine, allowing for individualised, specific drug treatments, but also the identification of our very own palette of hidden mutations that could cause disease in our children were our partners in possession of the same defects.

Use of pre-implantation screening of embryos with DNA sequencing, will cause a big reduction in the rates of inherited diseases – although it may take some of the spontaneity out of making babies. Sequencing information can also be used to identify our risk of getting a whole horde of more common diseases, such as arthritis, heart disease and asthma, so that we can take pre-emptive action.Knowing thine enemy intimately is the key to designing drugs for specific cancers, many of which have individual defects at the genetic level, another front on which we will see radical improvements in the medium term.

Dr Rachel Armstrong, senior TED Fellow, Avatar group, The Bartlett School of Architecture, London

There will be a much greater difference in the ageing of well off and poor people. Private medicine will be necessary for health maintenance while public services will deal with a lottery of dire emergencies owing to demand.

Those with access to good health care will enjoy preventative and maintenance treatments, so that they stave off ageing for longer cosmetically and physiologically. Wealthy older people will be having children later and it will not be unusual for women to bear children in their sixties, perhaps even older as biologically they will be as healthy as women 20 years their junior.